Editor’s Note: The following story first appeared in The Maine Monitor’s free environmental newsletter, Climate Monitor, that is delivered to inboxes for every Friday morning. Sign up for the free newsletter to get important environmental news by registering at this link.
All the way back in the fall of 2021, I called a geologist to ask what he thought about plans by the Canadian junior mining company, Wolfden, to dig for zinc and copper up near Patten, just east of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.
We talked about the proposal for awhile, and just before we hung up, I asked the question I ask at the end of every interview, one that almost always elicits an unexpected answer and is often the very best way to find new stories: What didn’t we talk about that you want me to know? In this case it definitely didn’t disappoint: after pausing for a moment, the geologist said well, there’s something interesting going on over in western Maine…
And thus began my (armchair) adventure into the world of lithium deposits, from the salt flats of South America to the hard-rock mines of western Australia, and, of course, into what is thought to be the world’s richest hard-rock deposit, in the sleepy town of Newry, near the New Hampshire border. A year-and-a-half later the story continues, now with a new player: lawmakers, who have introduced (at last count) ten bills aimed at altering Maine’s mining regulations.
The bills (I was only able to review the full text of one, as most are still in the Revisor’s office) run the gamut. One, LR 1624, sponsored by Rep. Maggie O’Neil of Saco, proposes a moratorium on lithium mining, while others (LR 1304, An Act to Promote Sustainable Lithium Mining in Maine, sponsored by Rep. Mike Soboleski of Phillips) are more full-throated in their support of the activity. (It’s worth noting that moratoriums are temporary holds on an activity designed to give regulators time to put in place rules, not permanent bans, as is often thought.)
Here’s the full list:
LR 1624, Rep. Maggie O’Neil of Saco: An Act to Ensure a Strategic Approach to Maine’s Energy System by Imposing a Moratorium on Lithium Mining
LR 420, Rep. Scott Landry of Farmington: An Act to Support Extraction of Common Rock-forming and Rare Earth Minerals
LR 1121, Rep. Lydia Crafts of Newcastle: An Act to Establish a Commission to Study Mining Materials
LR 1732, Rep. Nina Milliken of Blue Hill: An Act to Eliminate Mining Without a Permit
LR 1304, Rep. Mike Soboleski of Phillips: An Act to Promote Sustainable Lithium Mining in Maine
LR 2272, Sen. Richard Bennett of Oxford: An Act Regarding Metallic Mineral Mining
LR 2138, Sen. Craig Hickman of Kennebec: An Act to Protect the People from Open Pit Quarry Mining
LR 930, Sen. Lisa Keim of Oxford: An Act Concerning Lithium Deposits
The reason we’re seeing all of these bills, of course, is that Maine’s 2017 mining law prohibits mining for “metallic minerals” in open pits larger than three acres. The deposit in Newry is already partially exposed, and numerous experts have said that open pit mining (as opposed to an underground shaft) is the only logical way to remove the rocks, which, they also point out, do not pose the same environmental risks as other types of metal deposits. But all mining poses some risks, and not everyone is on board with the idea of digging giant holes in the earth, even if the end product is an essential part of the transition away from fossil fuels.
State regulators have acknowledged the risks involved in mining this deposit are different but say their hands are tied: because “metallic mineral” does not have a commonly-agreed upon meaning in the scientific community, and because legislators did not specifically exclude lithium from the 2017 rules, the Newry deposit should be considered a metallic mineral. (Meanwhile, the Freemans, the gem-hunters who own the land and identified the deposit, are challenging the DEP’s decision in court.)
Of the lawmakers I spoke to, all expressed a desire to support federal efforts to boost domestic production of critical minerals while ensuring the spirit and integrity of Maine’s 2017 mining law remains intact. (In case you were wondering whether the feds are serious, look no further than a $700 million government loan to a Nevada lithium mine announced earlier this week.)
“We are putting greater and greater demand on this resource,” said Sen. Lisa Keim of Oxford, whose bill, An Act Concerning Lithium Deposits, would amend the definition of metallic mineral in the 2017 law, with the ultimate objective of allowing the Newry deposit to be mined.
“I think we turn a blind eye to how it’s extracted, what’s the environmental impact. We don’t seem to care if it’s in another country…we can’t be NIMBY [not in my backyard] about this,” Keim continued, “when we’re very willing to take it from other places where there’s possibly greater harm.”
Keim said she was meeting with local and regional officials to discuss the potential impacts of mining the lithium in Newry, with a particular focus on safeguarding the town of Rumford’s water supply, which is adjacent to the deposit.
Rep. Lydia Crafts of Newcastle, whose bill would establish a commission to study the issue of critical minerals extraction, also felt that the state should be looking into domestic supply.
“I think at a state level we should also be considering what domestic supply of these minerals we have available to us – and my understanding of the supply that Maine has currently is significant,” said Crafts. “Before making a decision, I think we need to consider what those deposits mean and how extraction may occur safely or not to inform our future policy decisions.”
Crafts said a commission would offer “something in the middle” that “opens the doors to the possibility of making a change, but in a thoughtful and well-reasoned way.”
At least one bill, An Act to Promote Sustainable Lithium Mining in Maine, sponsored by Rep. Mike Soboleski (the Newry deposit is in his district), would amend the law to “support Lithium mining where ever it’s discovered in the state not just in Newry,” said Soboleski in an email.
The state’s mining coordinator, Mike Clark, declined to comment on the bills, saying he was awaiting final language.
Opening a new mine is a complicated, years-long endeavor anywhere in the world, so the bills, even if they pass, won’t allow the deposit in Newry to be mined tomorrow, or even a year or two years from now. Not only does Maine have very strict mining and water quality laws, we are also a home-rule state where most (95%) of the land is in the hands of private landowners. That means towns and cities have a lot of control over what goes on within their boundaries.
Take Pembroke, where the power of the people was on full display last spring, when 129 residents approved an ordinance that put the kibosh on all industrial metallic mineral mining after Wolfden began eyeing a silver mine in the area. And although it’s the DEP that issues mining permits (in theory, that is — none have been issued since the law was passed), much of rural Maine, where some of these deposits are found, is governed by the Land Use Planning Commission, adding another layer to the permitting cake. (Newry has its own planning board and is not in LUPC territory.)
Changes to the 2017 law to allow for the Newry deposit to be mined could also open the door for the extraction of other critical minerals, and it looks like Maine may have many: scientists have long known about a massive manganese cache in Aroostook County, and recently discovered the potential for rare earth elements near Pennington Mountain, a remote peak in the far northern corner of the state.
“Northern Maine is full of amazing geologic wonders,” Chunzeng Wang, lead author of the paper describing the recent find and professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, told the U.S. Geological Survey. “You never know what is next to discover.”
To read the full edition of this newsletter, see Climate Monitor: Six years later, lawmakers look to amend mining laws.
Kate Cough covers the environment for The Maine Monitor. Reach her with story ideas by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.